America's first female Supreme Court justice unveiled a videogame project on Wednesday to teach children how courts work, saying she wanted to counter partisan criticism that judges are "godless" activists.
Sandra Day O'Connor, 78, who served as U.S. Supreme Court justice from 1981 until her retirement in 2006, said she never imagined she would be asked to address a conference about digital gaming.
She said she got involved with developing the project called "Our Courts" out of concern over public ignorance about the judiciary and partisan attacks on what should be an independent institution.
"In recent years I've become increasingly concerned about vitriolic attacks by some members of Congress, some members of state legislatures and various private interest groups ... on judges," O'Connor told the Games For Change conference on using gaming technology for social improvement and education.
"We hear a great deal about judges who are activists -- godless, secular, humanists trying to impose their will on the rest of us," she said. "Now I always thought an activist judge was one who got up in the morning and went to work."
She said it was worrying to see members of the Senate requiring nominees to the Supreme Court to state how they would rule on certain cases during the confirmation process, and to see special interests trying to influence the election of state judges in states where such elections are still held.
"With partisan attacks and political pressure mounting, it's much more difficult to achieve fair and impartial judgments from the judges who are serving," O'Connor said.
She said the only way to preserve an independent judiciary was through public education, which she said was failing to produce citizens with enough knowledge about the three branches of U.S. government — legislative, executive and judicial.
The Our Courts project will have two parts, O'Connor said. The first is on online interactive civics program designed to be used by children from 7th to 9th grades either to supplement existing courses or as a distinct unit in the curriculum.
The program, developed with Georgetown University law school and Arizona State University, will be distributed free online.
"It will allow students to engage in real legal issues," she said. Asked to give an example, she said one element would focus on a scenario of a school attempting to stop students wearing a T-shirt with a controversial slogan — a free speech issue designed to elicit argument about the 1st Amendment.
She said the web site at http://www.ourcourts.org/ should have some initial material by this September and be fully operational with interactive elements a year later.
The second part of the project will be for young people to use in their free time, O'Connor said, noting that studies showed children spend around 40 hours a week using media, including computers, television, videogames or music.
"If we can capture just a little bit of that time to get them thinking about government and civic engagement rather than playing shoot-'em-up video games, that's a huge step in the right direction," she said.
O'Connor said she had seen from her own grandchildren that technology was the best way to inspire children to learn and it was vital to speak to them in their own language.
Asked what videogames she has played herself, she said: "I don't play videogames. Sorry."